Friday, March 26, 2010


Lend-A-Hand India, a US based non-profit founded by young Indians, has trained over 10,000 students in rural India in various trade skills. They are now developing a course in sustainable rural development based on permaculture principles.

I'm working on this project along with an international group of permaculture experts. The course will be designed to empower these rural students to help their communities meet their food, water, and shelter needs sustainably. Training in permaculture based farm design, water harvesting, waste management, locally appropriate building design and construction, and community action will enable better use of local resources, improved self-reliance, and rehabilitation natural ecosystems.

Please visit the project web page to donate to this project. Since Lend-A-Hand India is a registered non-profit under section 501(c)(3), your donation will be tax deductible!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The accepted agricultural wisdom is that fertilized fields in which plant residue is left in the field will actually gain soil carbon. Unfortunately, it seems the reverse is true - a study by University of Illinois scientists has shown that in their long term (1876-) test fields, soil carbon levels increased steadily till around 1965, when animal manure was used as fertilizer, and started declining after that, with the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

With decreasing soil carbon (humus), the soil structure deteriorates, as does the capacity of the soil to hold on to nitrogen. As nitrogen leaches out with water, the land needs more fertilizers to stay productive, creating a vicious cycle.

From the paper Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma for Sustainable Cereal Production

... Overwhelmingly, the evidence is diametrically opposed to the buildup concept and instead corroborates a view elaborated long ago by White (1927) and Albrecht (1938) that fertilizer N depletessoil organic matter by promoting microbial C utilization and N mineralization. An inexorable conclusion can be drawn: The scientific basis for input-intensive cereal production is seriously flawed. The long-term consequences of continued reliance on current production practices will be a decline in soil productivity that increases the need for synthetic N fertilization, threatens food security, and exacerbates environmental degradation.

This dilemma calls for an international effort by agricultural scientists to thoroughly review, evaluate, and revise current cereal production and management systems and policies. The immediate need is to use scientific and technological advances that can increase input efficiencies. One aspect of this strategy would be to more accurately match the input of ammoniacal N to crop N requirement by accounting for site-specific variations in soil N-supplying capacity and by synchronizing application with plant N uptake. In the long term, a transition may be required toward agricultural diversification using legume-based crop rotations, which provide a valuable means to reduce the intensity of ammoniacal fertilization with the input of less reactive organic N.
There is an informative article on Grist.org with comments from the authors.


Hat tip to Doug on the
Fukuoka Farming group for pointing out the Grist.org article.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Here's an excellent conversation on the challenges and possibilities for the next 40 years between Vaclav Smil, a professor at University of Manitoba and Andrew Revkin, NYTimes journalist and Dot Earth blogger.

The whole video is worth watching, but at 78 minutes, rather long. So here are some important points:

The Challenge:

  • 5 % of global population in North America consumes 35% of all resources. If India and China reach the same level of consumption, we need 5 planets.
The Good News:
  • Global population may never reach 9 B. Currently there is a 70-80% probability to peak between 8.2-8.5 B.
  • The Japanese consume half as much energy per capita as North Americans.
  • We have a lot of options for energy (shale gas) and other mineral resources.
  • Supercrops (nitrogen fixing, low water requirement, low phosphate requirement) may be possible with advanced genetic engineering*.
  • Human beings are amazingly adaptable.
The Bad News:
  • We are not going to change our personal behavior and economic structure unless we actually undergo a catastrophe.
  • China is moving rapidly towards NAm consumption levels. India wants to outdo China.
  • Alternative energy resources are currently very inefficient. Carbon sequestration is impractical, but will continue to consume attention.
  • Nitrogen fertilizers may become cheaper now due to cheap gas, but cheap and clean sources of phosphates are rapidly depleting.
  • Western economies is in grave danger. US is the biggest debtor nation in the history of the human race, and the debt is growing at $2T/six months.
The best things you can do now are:
  • Read anything and everything you can, become more numerate, and learn about the physical world around you.
  • Drive smaller and fewer cars
  • Eat less meat (Feed to meat ratios for factory farmed animals: Chickens - 3:1; Pigs - 7:1; Cows - 25:1)
--

* BTW, definitely check out these articles on Synthetic Biology in NYTimes -
Genetic engineers have looked at nature as a set of finished products to tweak and improve — a tomato that could be made into a slightly better tomato. But synthetic biologists imagine nature as a manufacturing platform: all living things are just crates of genetic cogs; we should be able to spill all those cogs out on the floor and rig them into whatever new machinery we want. It’s a jarring shift, making the ways humankind has changed nature until now seem superficial.
and also The New Yorker -
The deeply unpleasant risks associated with synthetic biology are not hard to imagine: who would control this technology, who would pay for it, and how much would it cost? Would we all have access or, as in the 1997 film “Gattaca,” which envisaged a world where the most successful children were eugenically selected, would there be genetic haves and have-nots and a new type of discrimination—genoism—to accompany it? Moreover, how safe can it be to manipulate and create life? How likely are accidents that would unleash organisms onto a world that is not prepared for them? And will it be an easy technology for people bent on destruction to acquire? “We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone. ”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Science Magazine has an excellent overview of the challenges of optimizing food production for 9 Billion people over the next 40 years:

Producing more food from the same area of land while reducing the environmental impacts requires what has been called "sustainable intensification". In exactly the same way that yields can be increased with the use of existing technologies, many options currently exist to reduce negative externalities. Net reductions in some greenhouse gas emissions can potentially be achieved by changing agronomic practices, the adoption of integrated pest management methods, the integrated management of waste in livestock production, and the use of agroforestry. However, the effects of different agronomic practices on the full range of greenhouse gases can be very complex and may depend on the temporal and spatial scale of measurement. More research is required to allow a better assessment of competing policy options. Strategies such as zero or reduced tillage (the reduction in inversion ploughing), contour farming, mulches, and cover crops improve water and soil conservation, but they may not increase stocks of soil carbon or reduce emissions of nitrous oxide. Precision agriculture refers to a series of technologies that allow the application of water, nutrients, and pesticides only to the places and at the times they are required, thereby optimizing the use of inputs. Finally, agricultural land and water bodies used for aquaculture and fisheries can be managed in ways specifically designed to reduce negative impacts on biodiversity.
NYTimes has a good summary.

Permaculture design principles can help reach a lot of these goals.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Farmer Suicides?

Google time line for pages from India - 1990-2009

Is the incidence decreasing or is the internet tired of talking about this? Exhaustive and informative coverage of the crisis by P. Sainath, Jaideep Hardikar and others continues on IndiaTogether.com.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This is the kind of research we need if farming is to become truly scientific:

"What is the importance of the involvement of microbes in plants? It hasn't really been examined," Bais notes. "We think that plants are doing everything on their own, but there is a whole world of microbes underground, associated with the roots of plants, that has yet to be analyzed."

Scientists have long known the symbiotic relationship between legume plants such as beans and the bacteria known as rhizobia that colonize the plants' roots and enable the plants to convert nitrogen from the air into fertilizer.

More recently, in research reported last fall, Bais and his colleagues showed that when the leaves of the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana were infected by a pathogen, the plant secreted an acid to recruit beneficial bacteria in the soil (Bacillus subtilis) to come to its defense.
Harsh Bais is a Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at University of Delaware.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Agroecology

The total-ecosystem-management view of agriculture put forward in Permaculture and Natural Farming are increasingly gaining acceptance as a legitimate academic research subject, often called Agroecology. Almost all major universities in the US now have agroecology research and education programs: UC Berkeley, Penn State, UC Santa Cruz, NCSU, UIUC, and Iowa State, to name just a few.

Miguel Altieri (UC Berkeley) and Stephen Gleissman (UC Santa Cruz) are probably the leading academic researchers in this field.

Common Bean, Maize, and Sunflower in UBC Milpa by aim sir na curad

Despite this activity, true sustainability in agriculture is faced with multiple challenges. From the "Barriers to Implementation" section of Prof Altieri's article* Modern Agriculture: Ecological Impacts and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming:

...some well-intentioned groups suffer from "technological determinism", and emphasize as a key strategy only the development and dissemination of low-input or appropriate technologies as if these technologies in themselves have the capability of initiating beneficial social changes. The organic farming school that emphasizes input substitution (i.e. a toxic chemical substituted by a biological insecticide) but leaving the monoculture structure untouched, epitomizes those groups that have a relatively benign view of capitalist agriculture. Such perspective has unfortunately prevented many groups from understanding the structural roots of environmental degradation linked to monoculture farming.

...

On the other hand, the large influence of multinational companies in promoting sales of agrochemicals cannot be ignored as a barrier to sustainable farming. Most MNCs have taken advantage of existing policies that promote the enhanced participation of the private sector in technology development and delivery, positioning themselves in a powerful position to scale up promotion and marketing of pesticides. Realistically then the future of agriculture will be determined by power relations, and there is no reason why farmers and the public in general, if sufficiently empowered, could not influence the direction of agriculture along sustainability goals.


* The whole article is a must-read. In just under 4000 words, Altieri gives an excellent overview of
  • the effects of industrial agriculture
  • the anticipated (and current) effects of genetic engineering
  • the alternative offered by Agroecological approaches
  • and the barriers to implementation
Do go and read that article now. If you are interested in getting a deeper understanding of the subject, there are some very well written books, esp. Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.

 

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